Response 1: Sandy
When I chose this topic for our next conversation, David, I thought I’d devote my first entry to all the perils of writing in many genres and use my second turn to focus on the joys. Then I realized I could think of only one peril! Maybe you’ll come up with more, but mine is a very short list. The one and only peril, as I see it, is that writing in a variety of genres is no way to get rich and famous. And, really, that’s only a peril if riches and fame are your primary goals.
David, you’ve heard me say this before, but I think you’ll agree it bears repeating. The road to riches and fame is a direct one: Do one thing, do it well, and do it over and over. This applies to almost any field. There are always exceptions to the rule, of course, but when you think about the rich and famous, do you have doubts about what you expect of each of them? I think not. Oprah is Oprah every day. Her fans count on it; her sponsors bank on it. Riches and fame depend on building a huge fan base, and that’s done by delivering the goods so consistently that folks can and do keep coming back for more, bringing their friends and relations with them.
The same holds true if your forte is hamburgers, ice cream, or a particular kind of writing. When readers pull up in front of a familiar name at a bookstore or library, they don’t want to find chocolate fudge ripple when their mouths are watering for another juicy hamburger!
I like Oprah. I also like great hamburgers and premium ice cream. And when I reach for Jane Austen, I’m in no mood for Ernest Hemingway. And vice versa. So I’m not putting down anyone who can do something well and do it time and time again. It takes talent, hard work, discipline, and something I can’t even define let alone pull off myself. A strong personality, maybe, one that permeates the product, whatever that product happens to be. In children’s books, I’m thinking A.A. Milne. Dr. Seuss. Judy Blume. Each one is a mighty fine writer in his or her own unique, recognizable way. So I’ve concluded the road to riches and fame is traveled best by the mighty fine who also happen to be unique and recognizable.
My road, on the other hand, has zigzagged all over the place. I’ve published plays for adults, children, and teens; poetry for adults and children; short stories and articles for various ages in magazines and journals, nonfiction books for all ages, YA novels, middle-grade novels, beginning chapter books, and picture books. Oh, and I’ve edited five anthologies. Forty-plus years into this writing business, I show no signs of reduced zig or lagging zag. In fact, I’ve just recently added blogging to the mix!
Why do I do it, when I know every bend in the road makes riches and fame less likely? Am I determined to sabotage myself? I don’t think so. It’s just that I write best when I’m deeply interested in what I’m writing about, and I’m rarely interested in the same thing twice in a row. Also, I like setting up and conquering new challenges: Can I write convincingly from a male point of view? (Been there.) Can I write a sonnet good enough to be published? (Done that.) Can I write an effective full-length play for a solo actor? (Working on it right now.) And then there are the assignments: I’ve been lucky enough to be asked to write things I never would’ve thought of myself but, once invited, happily can’t turn down. (More about this when I get to “the joys” next time.)
Finally, most ideas seem to dictate the way they want to come into this world: This story’s shaping up as a novel. That one absolutely begs to be acted out onstage. And the feeling behind this other one over here is so intense, it’s exploding into a poem. That’s the way it is for me, anyway. Is that true for you, too, David? Or for anybody else out there? I’d like to know!
Back to that looming peril: Anyone who enjoys a helping of my ice cream and stops by for another scoop may be disappointed to find me flipping hamburgers. That’s no small thing. It does make some readers unhappy, and it makes editors and marketing people unhappy, too. But as far as I can tell, David, it’s the ONLY peril. And I don’t seem to have much choice in the matter. For better or worse, I write the way I write because I am the way I am.
Don’t we all?
David, I’m eager to hear your take on this, perils and joys alike.
Response 2: David
Hi, Sandy. Thanks a lot for saying everything I wanted to say in your sterling piece last week. I gave some thought to cutting and pasting your comments here and sticking my name on them. But I guess I’m stuck with my own thoughts on the matter of the peril(s) of writing in many genres. Here goes.
First, I am in total sympathy with you and anyone else who feels compelled to stray off the path, any path, to write what needs to be written the way it wants to be written. I’ve gone so far as to take the same idea and write it as nonfiction and fiction to see which approach was a better fit. Sandy, do you think the tendency to write in more than one genre reflects, in some cases, how a writer developed in the beginning? My first success as a children’s author was with picture books: The Boy with a Drum (1969) and Little Turtle’s Big Adventure (1969). I stuck with what was working. The Book of Giant Stories (1972) won a Christopher Award. BUT . . .
Then my manuscripts started coming back. Failure brought more failure. Talk about a short career! I think I lacked that strong, singular voice; the consistent point of view; the familiar theme that characterizes so many writers who succeed in a single genre over time. I didn’t stand for anything. I felt like Dumbo without his magic feather. If my picture books had continued selling, maybe I would have stuck with them. BUT . . .
An editor who knew of my science background invited me to write a nonfiction chapter on anatomy and physiology for a new edition of a Childcraft book: About Me (1969). I was flying again thanks to a different kind of feather. I followed with other books of nonfiction: The World of American Caves (1970); Children Everywhere (1973); What Do You Know! (1981). Sandy, I worked hard on each one, but they were all different: geology, anthropology, questions/answers. It was a scattergun approach that reflected my range of interests rather than an ability to find a niche and stick with it. What was missing was a cohesive plan to pursue a specific track. Oh, I sold books, BUT . . .
There came a time in the mid-80s when neither genre was taking me where I wanted to go. Once again a new form came to my rescue. Over an eight-year period I produced only one picture book of merit (Wake Up, Sun! has sold more than 1,000,000 copies) but I discovered my love of poetry. At this point I’ve published more than a dozen poetry titles, but even here I can’t stay stuck. My work vacillates from verse to free verse, humorous to reflective, nature to pirates to . . .
I started out to say that if one genre had worked for me, and I could have controlled my wanderlust, I might have remained faithful to that one forever. Maybe I would be rich and famous for my picture books about cows by now. But something about the way my mind works seems to need a change once in a while. I think my muse gets bored or arthritic or needs more sleep than I give it. Whatever it is, I know I’ve had a lot of books published, BUT . . .
Not even I can define what I do. Or exactly why. Or worry about it. Sandy, I pass the baton back to you. Let’s spread a little joy!
Response 3: Sandy
Hi, David. You posed a question and a challenge in your last post on this intriguing topic of writing in many genres. The question was, “Sandy, do you think the tendency to write in more than one genre reflects, in some cases, how a writer developed in the beginning?” And the challenge was, “Let’s spread a little joy!”
In my case, the two are closely related. Starting way back in childhood, when it came to things literary or stageworthy, I’ve always wanted to be part of whatever was going on. Need a volunteer to pretend to be a tree, or choose-a-card-any-card, or be hypnotized and eat a lemon as if it were an apple? Here I am! I’ll do it! Choose me! In the market for a newspaper, yearbook, senior play? Yo! I’m your girl! I was always restless as an onlooker. If fun was being had, I wanted to be out there or up there or over there having it. And as recently as this past October, in a gypsy cave in Spain, when volunteers were called for to join the flamenco dancers, my far more retiring husband just sighed, reached over without a word, and took my purse so I could stand up.
So, yes, the tendency to write in more than one genre reflects the way I developed in the beginning. And yes, jumping right in there and trying new things that look like great fun has certainly brought me joy. As it was with the flamenco dancers, so it is with my fellow writers. I read, see, or hear something fresh and exciting, and it sure looks like fun to me. I can’t resist giving it a try. My first play for children was written after I attended a delightful show in which an actor friend was performing. My first successful YA novel followed readings of Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret and Julie of the Wolves. I never planned on having a blog, but when I read a few by friends that I really enjoyed, yours included, I began wondering what I could blog about. Et voila! Writers at Work. And, David, ever since your poetry-writing adventures began, I’ve been wanting to come up with a topic around which I could write a cycle of poems. Haven’t done it on my own yet, but I did write half the poems that eventually became the play Jesse and Grace: A Best Friends Story. And wasn’t that fun?
Is this being a copycat or indulging in a mild form of plagiarism? Not at all. It’s finding inspiration, and I thank you, David, and many other colleagues for pointing me toward new paths.
But, yes, some of my many switches in direction were matters of chance and/or sheer necessity. For years, I thought of myself as a “short distance runner,” publishing poems, stories, and articles in magazines as well as short plays. Then an editor asked for and accepted a nonfiction book proposal and I discovered I could write longer forms. When the YA market dried up (for me, anyway), I took a chance on pulling together anthologies. And when everything seemed to be slowing down at once, I inquired about a nonfiction series and signed on for books about China and Mexico.
Some of those changes were made in tough times. But you’ve got to admit, David, that even then there’s a bit of joy in knowing you can adapt.
Uh-oh. All this thinking back has uncovered a couple more perils: When you start down a path you’ve never taken before, you eventually have to figure out how to keep going. It may be a lark at first, but before long, it becomes work. Hard work. Harder than work you already know how to do. Also, when we launch ourselves into a genre we’ve never tried before, there’s absolutely no guarantee we’ll be able to pull it off. No track record. We may not be afraid of hard work, but can we do this particular kind of hard work? Who knows? We’ve never done it before!
I’ve often compared starting a new project to taking a bungee jump without knowing whether anyone’s bothered to place the protective band around my ankles. Never is this image more clear and terrifying than when I’m attempting something in an as-yet-unexplored genre. Yet I go on taking those plunges. Like the little girl of long ago, hoping to be chosen to come on up and pose as a tree, far preferring that to sitting around watching someone else pose as a tree, I tend to ignore the perils. I think I know why. More often than not, when I’ve put in the required effort, I’m rewarded with the joy of finding out once again that whatever strange and wondrous new thing it is, I can, indeed, do it!
And now, my multitalented and inspirational friend, back to you . . .
Response 4: David
And here we are on the final response to our fifth topic. If I’m counting right, Sandy, this will be the 21st episode of WRITERS AT WORK. Plus, there have been a number of comments and longer work shared by readers who have added significantly to our conversation.
So here I go with the joys of writing in many genres. For one, I share your sense of frightened exhilaration when an editor suggests something I’ve never tried and I hear those five familiar, crazy words flying from my mouth: “Sure, I can do that.” The closest sensation I can think of is that slight pause at the top of a roller coaster an instant before your car goes screaming down a slope you can’t possibly survive.
Jane Yolen says that writing is the more precious because we have to steal time to get it done. I offer a corollary: Writing in a new genre is the more invigorating because you have to survive to get it done. Such is the lure of the unknown and the chance to prove oneself (again) that draws writers toward the flame. Sandy, I can’t decide if I have that much confidence in myself or simply need to add that survival word—no—to my vocabulary: You’ve accused me of that before but it takes one to spot a fellow sufferer.
Back to the subject. I began as a short-story writer. But in my heart I knew that I could handle nonfiction. Thinking about that possibility gave me pleasure. I knew something that no one else knew. Lurking beneath my fiction writer veneer was a yet to be discovered writer of nonfiction. When I eventually found my wish coming true, I was very proud, but I had already enjoyed the idea for a long time before the fact.
But by then I was sure that beneath the nonfiction writer beat the heart of a poet. I knew I could write poetry. I thought about it, read about it, planned to do it, for a quarter of a century. I think of that long incubation period with its growing sense of anticipation as a joyful experience. It was a secret locked inside, exhilarating because I knew the day was coming when I would be done with putting it off. The day was coming when I was going to do it!
Sandy, do you have similar secret goals that you just simply know you can achieve when you get around to doing it? As you know, I’m a big fan of your plays and have been privileged to work with you twice on projects that have now been published and produced on stage. You’ve even offered to work with me on one of the plays. I couldn’t do it then, and perhaps I’ll never try, but I have long thought I could write a play. Who knows? I think I could be a sculptor, too, and a surgeon and an architect and a marine biologist. Maybe one day . . .
Until then, I will continue to find pleasure in the dreaming and joy when a dream comes true. Sandy, this has been a good topic. I’m eager to tackle the next one to be announced shortly.
The floor remains open for comments and other opinions.